Shaking the dust off bits of Pendleton history

Blue Mountain Community College recently launched an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot to improve communication with students and the community. Conversations happen online or via text message.

PENDLETON — Pendleton, meet Timboto.

Blue Mountain Community College recently launched an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot to improve communication with students and the community. Conversations happen online or via text message.

“Timboto is a robot version of our beloved mascot,” said Daniel Anderson, BMCC’s dean of instruction for arts and sciences.

The chatbot is the cerebral side of the school’s mascot, a wolf named Timber who was known pre-COVID for his high fives and hugs. His brainy alter ego, Timboto, helpfully responds to computer queries at any time of the night or day.

Such bots are emerging in academia and in many other venues. They are powered by a knowledge base of questions and answers, and an algorithm that detects nuances in the written dialogue. The chatbots learn as they go.

Anderson said he learned about the technology in an academic context during a presentation by Georgia State University. GSU, which comprises both a university and a community college, uses a chatbot to improve communications and credits the technology for increasing enrollment and the graduation rate at the community college.

Anderson floated the idea on his own campus in Pendleton. The bot, he said, would be available to students outside of normal business hours whenever they felt like communicating.

“Our students work during the day. They’ve got families,” Anderson said. “First-year students sometimes feel a little embarrassed. You can ask it all sorts of questions at any hour. This is a tool that doesn’t judge you.”

He said the program comes with a database of 800-plus questions, with follow-up questions attached to those.

“The best part is it gets smarter,” Anderson said. “It learns the ropes and gets better at responding.”

Library Director Brittany Young tackled the job of getting Timboto ready to go live. She said the technology supplier AdmitHub furnished an initial pool of questions and answers. Young’s staff tweaked the knowledge base to ensure it made sense for the BMCC community.

“We did a day of testing the bot,” Young said. “Students and staff had conversations with Timboto and asked it questions.”

When Timboto couldn’t respond, Young’s team fed it more answers. Testers also asked a few silly questions to see how the bot would handle them. When asked “What is love,” Timboto supplied a link to a YouTube video of pop singer Haddaway singing “What is Love?” When someone inquired, “Do you like animals?” the chatbot responded with, “Animals are fun, but personally I prefer bots.” The team left both answers in place. Timboto, who Young says has personality, also uses emojis.

The bot, which went live a week ago, generally answers more serious questions regarding registration, financial aid and how the school is handling the pandemic. If someone doesn’t speak English as their first language, Timboto can translate into whatever language is desired.

Currently, the chatbot is available on BMCC’s homepage. Simply press the “Talk to us” button. Eventually the button will appear on every page on the website. Timboto also can receive text messages at 541-234-8956.

Anderson credited Bruce Kauss, the school’s director for distance learning, who found distance learning and technology money to fund school’s the adventure into artificial intelligence. He plans to search for grant funding for next year. He said the new tool helps in this time of pandemic.

“We needed a communications tool,” Kauss said. “Timboto is able to communicate with students where they’re at.”

The chatbot offers users opportunity to connect with a human for follow-up, but it’s not required. If Timboto can’t answer, he apologizes, then asks the person to rephrase if possible.

Young urged patience.

“Timboto isn’t perfect yet,” Young said. “Be patient. It’ll get better and better.”

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